Last night I attended one of the most interesting dinners I’ve ever been to, and like all good experiences, it ties in with an aspect of writing.
Scent dinners are an innovation by the New York Times’ resident scent critic, Chandler Burr, and they combine a lavish dinner with a masterclass in the history and composition of perfumes. Between each course the guests are invited to sample a variety of scents—both completed perfumes and the different elements of which they are constructed—giving a wonderful understanding of how perfumes are designed. The dish that follows each sampling reflects the scents. In this way, the scent informs and augments the taste of the food, and the food adds to the experience of the scent.
So what’s this got to do with writing? Well, it made me think about the fact that our experience of food changes according to how the other senses are stimulated: visually rich, opulent surroundings act as a trigger to tell us that the food will be high quality, encouraging us to savour our meal, while, say, the environment of a bus station canteen might make us more inclined to bolt that same meal; bars have known for a long time that loud music makes you drink faster, while in a restaurant, quiet encourages the slow enjoyment of food; and, of course, experiencing different, related scents before eating stimulates our appreciation for the smell, and therefore the taste, of our dinner. To put it simply, we can create a richer experience by stimulating a variety of senses.
Now think about your writing (or your reading). Which senses are invoked? There’s sight, of course (writers “picture” a scene in their “mind’s eye” before committing it to paper), and sometimes sound, although even this doesn’t often get beyond shots “ringing out” and the odd “loud bang”. Taste doesn’t often get beyond “delicious” or “disgusting”, and scent rarely gets considered at all. (After all, we create pictures in our imagination all the time, but when was the last time you imagined a scent?)
I’m not suggesting that people force great chunks of multi-sensory stimulation into their books, just as I wouldn’t suggest spending two paragraphs on the colour of a wallpaper or allowing any other visual description to outstay its welcome, but it’s certainly something that writers should bear in mind. Next time you imagine a new scene, don’t just think about how it looks. Spare a thought for how it sounds, how it feels and, yes, how it smells.
I see that Burr has written a couple of books on perfume. If you’re interested in seeing how an expert has set about describing scent, those might not be a bad place to start. More information about the dinner—which has now passed, although I’m sure Context will be offering other sense-stimulating events in the future—can be found on this page, from which I’ve stolen the two photographs above.